Copyright Records

by Erica Rice

How long should you keep records documenting the copyright of an original work of authorship? Records documenting the copyright status of original works are administratively valuable when it comes to crafting licensing agreements, drafting acceptable use notices, responding to infringement lawsuits, etc.

For Texas state universities, the answer is simple: follow the minimum retention period for RSIN 11.1.005 on the University Records Retention Schedule (URRS).

RSINRecord Series TitleRecord DescriptionRetentionLegal Citation
11.1.005Copyright RecordsThis records series pertains to the form of protection that may be obtained for original works of authorship by a University employee within the scope of his or her employment, including works such as intellectual, artistic, computer software, and literary works. Records may include but are not limited to a copy of the work of authorship itself (e.g., an article, book, computer program) as submitted to the United States Copyright Office and the corresponding copyright application and registration notice.AC (AC = Expiration of copyright.)17 U.S.C. 302.

State agencies may want to consider adding a similar series to their schedule, and local governments may consider adopting an internal amendment to address copyright records.

Great, so you will keep copyright records until they expire… which is when, exactly? The length of copyright protection for original works is governed by Title 17 of the United States Code, which is quite a hefty regulation and beyond the scope of this blog to summarize. However, the basic rule is:

For works that were created by employees within the scope of their employment (called “work made for hire”), copyright protection lasts for either 95 years from the work’s first publication, or 120 years from its creation, whichever is shorter.

17 U.S.C. 302(c)

For works that were created by individuals, copyright protection lasts throughout the life of the author and 70 years after his or her death.

17 U.S.C. 302(a)

The rules can get more complicated depending on numerous other factors like date of publication and type of work, so consult your legal counsel to determine exact copyright expiration dates for specific works.

Some local governments and state agencies choose to retain copyright records permanently, as this obviates the need to perform complicated expiration date calculations.

A fun fact about copyright is that registration is voluntary—the U.S. Copyright Office advises that copyright exists from the moment the work is created, and registration is only required in order to sue for copyright infringement.

Your office may have copyright registration applications for works created by your governments, registration certificates for copyrighted works that you acquire/use, or you may have neither. A copyright record may be the registration application and copy of the original work itself, or it may be as simple as documentation of the publication date, creation date, date of death, or other relevant data used in determining the copyright expiration. It is up to your local government or state agency to determine proper documentation of the copyright process.

How Can Copyrighted Materials Be Used?

“Fair use” of copyrighted materials is a nuanced determination—consult your legal counsel before using or providing access to copyrighted materials.

Works published by federal governmental offices are usually not copyrighted.

Copyright for works published by Texas state governmental offices is a question that should be addressed with your legal counsel. Harvard has compiled a resource with relevant laws for each state, including Texas, that may be helpful in determining whether Texas state agency documents are subject to copyright.

For more information about “fair use,” see the Library Development and Networking Division’s webinar on “Introduction to Copyright & Fair Use.”

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